Most of the time, people ask me what they should be doing to get big or get strong. Every once in a blue moon, however, I get the question, “How do you train, James?”
Through a lot of trial and error, I noticed I respond best to a certain range of reps and certain number of sets. Not all the time, but about 80% of the time, I get big and strong on 4-6 sets per exercise (totaling 8-10 sets per body part), 4-6 reps per set.
I also noticed that I respond to explosive movements: power cleans, kettlebell snatches, etc. I’m just geared to be fast and moving. My body just hates moving slow or being still. If I eat all the time, then my body swells up like a monster on the above parameters. If I just eat like a regular Joe, then I just stay trim and lean.
Why am I like this? Well some people have a lot of fast-twitch muscle fiber, and I happen to be one of them. It means I like heavy weight and speed, so 4-6 reps is the sweet spot for me. 4-6 sets per exercise, totaling at 8-10 sets per body part is the amount of volume I respond to.
Tempo and Muscle Fiber Makeup
Of all program variables (sets, reps, exercises, rest, etc.), tempo is the most individualized. Tempo refers to the speed of a lift. Some people are fast, some people are slow, and there really isn’t much more to it than that. People instinctually lift at a speed they feel most comfortable with.
But why do some lifters perform dumbbell rows as if they’re trying to rev up a lawnmower, while other lifters perform dumbbell curls with the speed of a sloth?
The reason for individual tempo preferences has to do with muscle fiber make-up. Whether your muscles are composed of fast-twitch fibers or slow-twitch fibers dictates whether you lift quickly or slowly.
Fast-twitch muscles are designed for speed, strength and power (the combination of speed and strength) and have the greatest potential for growth. Fast-twitch muscles respond best to low reps and heavy weight, with an explosive concentric (lifting) portion and a controlled negative (lowering) portion.
Slow-twitch muscles are designed for endurance. They respond best to light weight and high reps. With slow-twitch muscles, the number of reps is more important than the amount of weight used.
Very few people are pure fast-twitch or pure slow-twitch. Most people have an equal mix of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. In fact, fiber makeup varies from muscle to muscle. Although there can be wide variations among people regarding their muscle fiber make-up, in general most people have the following muscle group compositions:
- Chest- mixed fiber makeup
- Back- mixed fiber makeup
- Deltoids- slow-twitch
- Quadriceps- mixed fiber makeup
- Hamstrings- fast-twitch
- Biceps- mixed fiber makeup
- Triceps- fast-twitch
- Calves- slow-twitch
If you want to be big, strong and powerful, then you’ve got to train those fast-twitch fibers that are in most of your muscle groups. Question is: how do you tap into those fast-twitch fibers? Is it simply a matter of training heavy with low reps?
A lot of people who’ve trained heavy with low reps don’t get very big. Why is this? Is it simply that they have more slow-twitch fibers?
The reason why some people don’t get big from heavy weight and low reps is that they don’t perform enough volume. Volume is the number of sets times the number of reps. Volume indicates how much work is being performed and is a major builder of muscle. Higher volume workouts tend to build muscular size more than low volume workouts.
When people do bodybuilding workouts (where the goal is getting bigger), they typically do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps on an exercise. 4 sets of 12 reps is 48 total reps.
When people switch to heavy workouts, oftentimes they lower the reps but keep the total number of sets the same. So if you did 4 sets of 5 reps, then you would have a total of only 20 reps, which is less than half the volume.
This is why some people don’t get big from heavy reps: they’re not adding enough volume. They don’t do more sets to make up for the lack of reps. Many powerlifting programs require several sets of low reps for each of the power lifts. 8-12 sets of 1-5 reps are typical.
So is it just a matter of adding more sets of low reps if you want to build up the fast-twitch fibers?
You can do multiple sets of low reps, but such training is very draining. Adding more sets increases the length of the workout. 4 sets of 12 reps with 1 minute rest periods can be done in 7 minutes.
8 sets of 5 reps with 1 minute rest periods, however, equals 15 minutes, which is over twice as long. And if you perform multiple exercises for each muscle group, then you will have some very long workouts. Any workout over 45-60 minutes depletes your testosterone and will burn you out.
Fast-Twitch Compound Sets for Maximal Muscle Growth
What if you could hit the fast-twitch fibers with enough sets and enough exercises to fully maximize muscular hypertrophy? The way to do this is to perform fast-twitch compound sets.
Typical high set/low rep programs have just one exercise per muscle group. Fast-twitch compound sets, however, allow you to hit each muscle from multiple angles.
Fast-twitch compound sets increase training volume (number of sets) as well as training intensity (heavy weight) and training density (the amount of work done per unit of time). All three factors contribute to building muscular size.
Here’s how a fast-twitch compound set works:
A traditional compound set is essentially two exercises targeting a specific muscle group done back to back. For example here’s a compound set for the shoulders:
- Military Press- 6 reps, followed immediately by
- Lateral Raises- 12 reps, rest for 2 minutes
- Repeat two more times
Normally compound sets are done heavy-light (heavy weight on the first exercise, high reps on the second). With fast-twitch compound sets, however, you do heavy weight, low reps on both exercises:
- Military Press- 6 reps, followed immediately by
- Wide grip upright rows- 6 reps, rest for 2 minutes
- Repeat 4 more times
This compound set has a volume of 60 reps done in a time period of 13 minutes. Fast-twitch compound sets allow you to train heavy with enough volume in a short period of time.
The Size and Power Program for the Fast-Twitch Dominant
The following is a program that you can use to hypertrophy your fast-twitch muscle fibers. The workouts utilize fast-twitch compound sets for most muscle groups. Alternate between Workouts A and B throughout the week, following a two on/one off/two on/two off split.
Back Compound Set (5 sets, rest 2 minutes between compound sets):
- Pull-ups, 5 reps
- Seated cable rows, 5 reps
Chest Compound Set (5 sets, rest 2 minutes between compound sets):
- 20⁰ Dumbbell Bench Press, 5 reps
- Dips, 5 reps
Biceps Compound Set (5 sets, rest 2 minutes between compound sets):
- Zottman curls, 5 reps
- Incline curls, 5 reps
Triceps Compound Set (5 sets, rest 2 minutes between compound sets):
- Lying EZ-curl bar extensions, 5 reps
- Cable Pressdowns, 5 reps
Lateral raises – descending sets of 6, 6, 6 reps (3 series of descending sets, rest 2 minutes between series)
Quadriceps Compound Set (5 sets, rest 2 minutes between compound sets):
- Front Squats, 5 reps
- Sissy Squats, 5 reps
Hamstrings Compound Set (5 sets, rest 2 minutes between compound sets):
- Leg curls, 5 reps
- Romanian Deadlifts, 5 reps
Standing machine calf raises – descending sets of 6, 6, 6 reps (3 series of descending sets, rest 2 minutes between series)